Ending worker exploitation

The practice in which “black companies” exploit employees, especially young workers, by imposing excessively heavy workloads, long working hours and low pay continues to be a serious social issue. As part of its effort to help stamp out such exploitation, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has announced it will set up a system under which public employment security offices may decline to accept notices of job availability from such businesses.

Although this decision is late, it is a meaningful step forward. The government and society should strive harder to eradicate the practice of treating workers like throwaways.

In the labor ministry’s 2013 survey — its first ever — of 5,111 businesses nationwide suspected of “black” labor practices, 4,189 or 82.0 percent of the total were found to have violated labor-related laws in one way or another — 43.8 percent by imposing illegal overtime work on employees, 23.9 percent by failing to pay workers for overtime and 1.4 percent by not taking steps to prevent health hazards from overwork.

In a separate survey taken last November by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), 26.9 percent of 3,000 company employees polled replied that they consider their employers “black” companies, citing long work hours, low pay and difficulty in using paid holidays. The ratio rose to 32.7 percent among respondents in their 20s.

The labor ministry plans to change the current rule that its Hello Work employment security offices must, in principle, accept all job availability notices — even if the companies putting up the job offers have been suspected of abusive labor practices or been the subject of complaints in the past. The job security offices will stop accepting job offers if the companies repeat violations of the Labor Standards Law such as failing to pay overtime, break the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and a law mandating child-care leave. The ministry plans to submit a relevant bill to the Diet this month.

In setting detailed conditions for refusing to accept job offers, the ministry should make sure the new measure is effective as possible. For example, it should heed complaints that its plan is too lenient given that actions will be taken only against repeat offenders.

This will only be a first step and more needs to be done to squeeze abusive enterprises. An important step should be raising the public profile of such businesses and heightening people’s awareness of their practices. The ministry should constantly monitor the practices of businesses suspected of mistreating employees and should publicly identify firms whose working conditions are particularly pernicious, including firms with a high rate of employee turnover. The ministry should also beef up its ability to consider complaints from people working in inhumane conditions. To effectively stop illegal labor practices, the ministry needs to train and increase the number of labor standards inspection officers.

Schools also need to make students familiar with labor protection measures under the law to prevent exploitation. As irregular job positions account for an increasing portion of Japan’s workforce, many abusive enterprises are believed to be taking advantage of graduates by offering them permanent positions that fall into the sweatshop category. This is made possible by the overall difficulty in finding employment and by the poor financial circumstances of some students and their families. The government and the business community must realize that making more decent jobs available is indispensable in putting an end to unscrupulous labor practices.